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Structure in the Workplace: Focusing on Work Outcomes

December 9, 2011 2 comments

Employers intuitively and practically understand the need for structure in the workplace. Structure provides the roles, rules, and plans to achieve the outcomes desired by a business or organization. Too often, however, the structure becomes a control mechanism instead of a guide for individual and organizational success. When this occurs, structure becomes counterproductive and an impediment to creative problem-solving.

People need structure as a guidepost for their efforts in the workplace. They need a framework for operating in relation to one another and toward organizational goals. The key to operating a useful, healthy structure is in not letting the structure take over and ruling what people do. Structure works best when it focuses more on defining work outcomes instead of work behaviors. Workers want to understand how their work product contributes to organizational success, not every detail of how they are supposed to make that contribution. This focus on the outcome is how structure can exist while still allowing employees an opportunity for autonomy and mastery in their work. The focus on outcomes can help workers maintain the creativity and flexibility needed to master their jobs, find efficiencies, and be part of the team.

I saw structure become a problem when I was consulting to a group home system. The system had built an elaborate set of procedures and rules for the staff and the troubled kids. If the kids broke enough of the rules, there were clear sanctions and they were eventually removed from the home. While the system was there to work with “troubled kids,” over time the rules took over and the kids failed at an alarming rate. The director was clear: “We have a set of rules that need to be followed.” Unfortunately those rules became more important than the creative challenge of helping kids adjust, heal, and become productive members of the community.

Don’t get me wrong. The rules were needed. But they got in the way of real success. The enforcement of the rules became the project.

In the work environment, people can use the structure to help them produce products or provide organizational service in an efficient manner. But when the rules become more important than the actual product, then it is time to revisit the rules.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

http://www.DeMaioPsychology.com

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Safety and Security in the Workplace through Structure

November 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Safety and security in the workplace is usually discussed in terms of the emotional support and protection provided to employees. But there is another component to safety and security often overlooked. People feel safer and more secure when there are clear rules and expectations for performance; that is, when there is a healthy structure.

Healthy structure is about clear rules, roles, rewards, and consequences. Work is a place where employees go to perform a job. They need to know what needs to be accomplished, and how their work integrates with the overall production of the organization. Without structure – think the boring stuff like policies and procedures – people will be hesitant, unsure, and worried about judgment of their work. Rules provide a framework for guiding a person’s sense of how to operate in the environment.

Without a definition of needed organizational outcomes, people have no way to feel successful, accomplished, or motivated for hard work. Goals provide the essential measure for workers to compare their performance and to know that they have done a good job.

One trick to having organizational structure succeed is to have employees participate in building, or modifying, their own structure. It keeps them from feeling controlled and managed in a very negative way. Participation also helps make the structure relevant and efficient for achieving employee outcomes. And, when workers participate, they are more likely to follow and enforce the structure in their small work group. It cuts down on refusals and rebellion, keeping people within safe and productive parameters.

Safety and security is achieved through communal buy-in of the structure. When workers agree that the fundamental structures, like pay policies and organizational procedures, are fair and reasonable, they will maintain a safe and secure work culture. The few people who behave counterproductively will be contained and corrected by the vast majority who respect the structure.

When I was consulting to a facility for troubled kids, a counselor was asked how he was so successful in getting the kids to listen to and obey him. Mickey replied, “You govern by the consent of the governed.” After we finished laughing, we agreed it was too true. Don’t forget, it is the same in your organization, and it makes for a safe and secure environment.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

www.DeMaioPsychology.com

Talking about Work-Life Balance

So what do you do if your organization isn’t paying attention to the issue of work-life balance and you are working too many hours? This is a real predicament for so many employees, most of whom just endure the trap. After all, everyone needs their job. It puts the bacon on the table.

Remember, your employer may not realize or think they are taking advantage of you. It is just hard for managers to support a work-life balance if it is not driven by organizational leadership. Having people work longer hours does help the bottom line, especially in very difficult financial times. Longer hours makes scheduling complex staff teaming a bit easier, and it definitely helps with meeting deadlines. Managers get promoted and succeed if they get more done with fewer resources.

How do you talk about this subject without being a trouble-maker or risking your job?

• Don’t imply that the boss is intentionally treating you badly or using you. Actually you don’t know and it may just be a “work ethic” in the culture.
• Don’t threaten anything, like leaving or suing.
• Don’t demand, bully, or be defiant.

There are good ways to go about the discussion:

• Do explain that you are committed to the organization and want to succeed in it.
• Do be respectful.
• Do explain that you are having difficulty with the time required to work on the job.
• Do explain that you have personal or family obligations – without mentioning what they are. It is not appropriate for the organization to know or judge a valid use of your personal time. Whether you have an obligation to a family member or not, remember that you have one to yourself.
• Do ask if there is some way to accomplish your job in the time you are paid for.
• Do think about the response you get and say, “I will think about what you have said to me.”

If your employer is willing to work with you, thank them and work earnestly to solve the problem. If your employer is not willing to make a plan with you, tell them you feel that is unfortunate. Keep working hard (“I’ll do the best I can.”)…and start looking for that next job.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

http://www.DeMaioPsychology.com

Work/Life Balance and Achieving Mastery

October 28, 2011 1 comment

Employees seek to achieve mastery at work. They want to master their jobs and feel a sense of accomplishment. It makes for happy, satisfied, and successful employees. Similarly, people want mastery in their personal and family lives. When people are not able to manage their personal lives they get funky: they are anxious, unhappy, and distracted from work.

Organizations are smart to pay attention to work/life balance issues. They need to be careful about taking advantage of their employees and pushing them to their limits, especially in a very lean economy. Far too often people will just go along with trying to meet the demands of their jobs…until they break. They break by getting tired, unhappy, and disgruntled. You may not know it until they leave for another job.

Some of the best employees are the ones who will surprise you and suddenly be gone. I recently consulted with one who wanted help conveying to her employer that she was struggling. As a parent with a young child, she was upset about the required travel, about the tasks piling up on her desk, and about the pushy atmosphere at the job.

We made a plan for her to tell the boss about her issues with travel. She was not refusing the travel, just hoping it would be slightly reduced. She explained that the erratic hours and workload were difficult for planning child care and family schedules. Her boss heard her, expressed his regrets and made comments about the pressures facing a company that had recently been sold.

Hearing that there was no concrete plan to help her manage, she began looking for another job. With her competence she found a new job that actually paid better and where the company expressed a commitment to employee time protection. When she submitted her resignation, her current employer acted surprised and offered to nearly match the new salary. Without hesitation she turned them down.

It is a common tale, part of the reason that employee satisfaction rates run about 45% in America. Work/life balance isn’t just a good thing to do, it is critical to maintaining employees in your organization. Encourage your employees to tell you how they are fairing with their work/life balance, or suffer a higher turnover rate. It is not really a choice.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

www.DeMaioPsychology.com

Employee Growth and Development is Not Just about Training

Sometimes you hear an organization boast about how it fosters employee growth and development, “after all, we provide many training opportunities for our staff.” But is staff growth really about training? Let me suggest that it is much more about encouraging employees to take on new tasks, have autonomy, and succeed at the work before them.

You see, training is a about gaining new knowledge or skill. This is important and useful. But acquiring new learning requires application. People have to use this information on new tasks that are engaging and matter to the organization. Without an opportunity for application, the new learning is useless, or worse, a sham.

Employers that want their employees to grow try to give them tasks that are manageable steps toward the completion of a major goal. People want and need to succeed. This is what Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer focus on in The Progress Principle. “Even when progress happens in small steps, a person’s sense of steady forward movement toward an important goal can make all the difference between a great day and a terrible one.”

Employee growth and development is about helping people achieve mastery. People want to feel like they are mastering something that is challenging and valuable. It leads to confidence, satisfaction, and a desire to do more. So when training applies to the task of the employee there is excitement and drive about its application.

Any parent knows this experience firsthand. Toddlers especially, but certainly all kids, want to solve problems. The phrases are “me do it,” or “I want to figure it out.” As a parent you realize that you have to take the time to let the child succeed (even if it takes much longer than just doing it yourself). The kids are elated when they succeed and usually want to do the task over and over. “Look, I did it,” is the proud end result. Our response is “yes, you can do it and you are competent.”

Our employees want the same thing. Give them something worthwhile to accomplish, then support them in feeling successful and competent. That’s growth and development.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

www.DeMaioPsychology.com

Employee Growth is Enhanced by Team-Building

A recurring problem I run into as a business management consultant is the organization’s management structure. Too many organizations still rely on an old hierarchical model; you know, where six to ten people report to a supervisor. Each person works under a manager/supervisor who monitors their work, coaches their efforts, and evaluates the results.

A few years ago I was asked to consult with a service organization which had three supervisors each overseeing the work of eight workers, all with very similar jobs. Each group had its strengths and weaknesses. One group was superb at the service provision, and one was great with their paperwork. Another was reacting to its supervisor. The director of the organization was feverishly supervising the supervisors in the hopes that they would all work effectively.

What could be wrong with this model? It was painfully obvious that each group operated as a function of its leader. Because hierarchical management structures are top-down, they transmit the strengths and weaknesses of their leader directly to the supervisees. There is no buffer, very little cross pollination, and the situation is ripe for personality conflicts.

In hierarchical organizations each person becomes narrowly focused on their job. Their goal is to succeed at the job as defined by their boss. They don’t feel a part of a larger mission, they are not connected to one another, and they are less likely to contribute to improving the overall service provision by the organization.

My consultation goal became turning the management group into a team. As the management group began working together, they rediscovered their respect for one another by virtue of their unique strengths. Previously seen as an obsessive, one supervisor took on the task of leading the others in strategies for getting the necessary paper work done. One supervisor led discussions about the nature of supervision and the quality of service provision. They all worked to support their weaker colleague.

When people aren’t in teams, there is very little shared learning. The learning is limited to the skills of the leader/manager. Any diversity that is present in the group is left unused and unappreciated. There is too little safety and mutual support.

My consultation with this group tied the strengths of each team member into a unified whole. By doing so they began to grow and learn from one another in ways they had not previously experienced. In doing so they agreed to turn their respective groups of supervisees into teams. When those teams began to function the organization moved to a whole new level of growth and development.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

www.DeMaioPsychology.com

Growth and Development for Employee Mastery

September 28, 2011 Leave a comment

One implication of a family-like work environment is that, just like in a family, you want your young ones to learn, grow, and become self-sufficient. Believing in continuous growth of employees not only leads to more “training,” but it leads to greater levels of autonomy, ownership of the work, and more sophisticated performance.

You facilitate employee mastery by sending the message that you believe in your employees: that they are viewed as grown-ups, as wanting to do a great job, and wanting the organization to succeed. This fosters the “less management” approach to leading them; one where you can spend your energy getting behind people instead of controlling or correcting them. In turn, workers move on to measure their success by doing the job well and by contributing; not by the approval or disapproval of their boss.

What you want is independent thinking by your team members. Anything other than that can produce sycophants who repeat back what they think is expected. No creativity, no innovative productivity, and very little job satisfaction.

Teaming itself fosters growth and autonomy. Since team members view one another as peers, they are more apt to contribute, to self correct, and to remind one another of outcome goals. Team members feel that the collective wisdom is in them, not the supervisor. It means they are responsible for finding the answers.

Essential to supporting the move to autonomy and employee mastery is emotional safety. People can think more creatively when they are not so worried that any mistake will get them in trouble. As an organization makes it safe to take on a challenge and the risk of failing, more and more of the staff seek opportunities for growth.

In fact, recent research in neuroscience only underscores this point. When people feel safe and seek growth, their brain releases neurotransmitters that improve brain plasticity and produce a sense of well-being. When there is no safety and people do only what they know, these neurotransmitters and not released, nothing changes, and they are less happy.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

www.DeMaioPsychology.com